Chapter One: Cold Is Just Something That Happens

 

LUCKY HAD made up his mind.

Finally, he’d decided it was time to leave Earth behind and head home. To Ethra, another world, the one he’d started out in. Though he’d turned fifteen a week ago, the three years he’d been away had seemed like his entire life, because he hadn’t a shred of memory of his childhood. That is, until the wizard Thurlock and the warrior Han Shieth had found him and all hell broke loose.

After that, he did have a shred of memory—even a few shreds, here and there. He’d remembered Han was his uncle, and he’d remembered his mother’s face. And he’d remembered his names, Luccan Elieth Perdhro—all but the fourth and most important one. He couldn’t have remembered that one, because he’d only heard it once on the day he was born.

But then Lucky had stood in the Witch-Mortaine Isa’s tower and fought her gruesome magic side by side with his father—whom he hadn’t remembered—and as the man lay dying, he’d given Lucky that final name.

“Mannatha,” he’d said. “It’s who you are. Luccan Elieth Perdhro, Mannatha, Suth Chiell.” Lucky’s cardinal name, a gift, but Lucky hadn’t known what it meant.

Thurlock had come to fight Isa with him, and Lucky had let himself breathe easy, expecting the amazing old man to take care of everything, but even powerful wizards apparently get tired, and in the end, he’d called on Lucky to do his part. With the Key of Behliseth and the wizard, Lucky had managed to pull a rabbit out of his hat just in time.

And by rabbit, I mean this weird… bubble in which we’re now flying through… something.

In their transport, round and seemingly made of golden light, Thurlock and he rode along in reasonable comfort. When he’d wanted to stop so he could think, the grumpy old wizard had said the thing was Lucky’s magic, and only Lucky could stop it.

And I did!

These abilities, powers, whatever they were, still surprised him. The last three years, he’d lived in Earth, a world that didn’t believe in magic, where even those who claimed to believe remained skeptics at heart. But he’d stopped the magical coach just by wanting to, and when he’d decided where he wanted to go, it lurched into motion again, accelerating as it rushed toward an even more astounding, and yes, scary thing Lucky had apparently created too, without knowing he’d even tried.

Out there, hanging in the middle of nothingness, was a huge, five-sided object that would allegedly lead somewhere.

“Thurlock,” he’d asked when he first caught sight of it, “is that what I think it is?”

“If you think it’s a Portal of Naught, then yes.”

Lucky had heard that term a few times before in the last week, but that didn’t mean he understood it. The “Portal” part, yes—a gateway, the wizard had said, and that made sense. But he really didn’t know what “Naught” was about. It wasn’t exactly space, Lucky thought, and it wasn’t exactly time, though it might have some of both. Mostly, he thought it might be the stuff between dimensions, whatever that meant. Although, the way magical Ethrans thought of things, maybe they’d say the stuff between worlds.

Whatever it was, they were now flying toward it and the giant, glimmering blackness that spun within its pentagonal boundary, and Thurlock had assured Lucky it would take them home.

Lucky stared at it until they were so close he could see nothing else. They passed through a curtain of light like a membrane, and then they were inside. No, then they became part of the black nothingness, so much so that Lucky could barely hold on to the idea of himself, and Thurlock was nothing more in his mind’s eye than a golden shimmer.

The orb he’d created for their transport had vanished the instant they passed through the shining curtain, as if Lucky’s magic had been peeled away. The sense of speed and even motion had disappeared, replaced by the surprising allure of Naught, an almost unbeatable desire to let go of all the pieces that made up Lucky, or Luccan Elieth Perdhro, Mannatha, Suth Chiell, and return them to the dark stardust of which they must have been made.

Thurlock had told him—days ago, but it seemed ages—that without magic one couldn’t travel by Portal, yet magic couldn’t make the Portal work. Now Lucky thought he might have begun to understand. Strange as it seemed, he knew for sure that only the power of his wish—his own brand of magic—kept him from flying apart, made it possible for him to think of himself as “me,” or think at all, for that matter.

Which was an especially alarming thought.

In an instant of doubt, he mentally called for the wizard, and then everything changed. He snapped back into physical reality, still tumbling wildly through nothingness. The motion nauseated him, and he became even more alarmed. What would it be like to barf in Naught? Horrid thought!

Lucky stopped, everything stopped, as he slammed up against something rough—hit it hard enough to bounce off and skid over another hard surface flat on his back. All remained dark, but Lucky had a sense that the darkness had changed, somehow taken on somethingness. It felt cold and carried a mineral smell, and perhaps he could even feel its elusive presence on his skin. Skin that burned from numerous scrapes and objected painfully to the rough surface on which he lay.

What the…? Yes, that must be it. I’ve died and this is the Ethran version of hell.

It seemed plausible. He could smell sulfur. Although he couldn’t quite put that together with the cold. Aside from that, he smelled damp and stone, and heard dripping, and…. Tik-tik-tik, tik-tik. Like beetles and spiders with either big feet or else tiny tap shoes.

He might be dead and it might be hell, or maybe not. The best way to find out for sure would be to investigate. As sore as every part of him was, the prospect of moving alarmed him, but he tried anyway. It wasn’t going to be easy. Every time he shifted anything larger than a finger or toe, either his head started spinning or pain exploded like a geyser.

Gritting his teeth, he raised his arms—glad they were still attached and still worked—and felt around for nearby surfaces.

Maybe I’m just in a coffin, not hell.

Nothing close on either side, apparently, so not a coffin. Doing his best to ignore the ache in his head, he sat up. Or he tried to sit up. He didn’t make it all the way before he cracked his forehead on another unforgiving, rough surface. His “Ouch!” echoed back at least four times.

Feeling around with his hands, he discovered a wall, probably rock, behind him. What he’d smacked his head on stuck out from the wall, but not far. He surmised the darkness was really inside a large hollow space, like a cave, which explained the echo. He said to himself (and possibly to the echo), “But… where the heck am I?”

“How the heck should I know?”

That voice came out of the dark and dead silence somewhere around Lucky’s feet. Startled, Lucky again tried to sit up, again smacked his head, and this time his “ouch” turned into a scream. Before he had time to think, he kicked his legs wildly in self-defense. His foot met flesh with a crack.

“Uufh,” the voice commented, and then after a few seconds, “Luccan, stop! It’s me, Thurlock!”

“Oh.” Lucky waited for the wizard to say something else. When that didn’t happen, he gathered up his courage and asked, “Are you all right?”

“We-e-ell,” Thurlock said.

Lucky had not been aware that so much drawling sarcasm could be stuck into one syllable. Thurlock stayed quiet for quite a few seconds, and Lucky supposed he should try to say something. Before he thought of what might work, Thurlock continued.

“Well, certainly,” the wizard said. “Certainly I’m all right, Lucky, unless you count my head, which feels cracked like a melon; my ribs, which you just kicked in, undoubtedly all set to puncture my lungs if the pain of breathing is any indication; and my fingers, which I somehow jammed between two rather hard, sharp objects—just a guess they might be rocks—as we arrived here in our luxury accommodations, which are of course the absolute epitome of comfort, albeit a bit cramped.”

A brief silence followed, and then Thurlock said, “Perhaps you should breathe, Luccan.”

Lucky realized he had indeed been holding his breath. He remedied that and started to say thank you, but Thurlock had more to say.

“Oh, and of course I do feel a bit spent, having had a rather full day jam-packed with exciting activities such as rescuing teenage boys—”

“Boy,” Lucky corrected.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Only one boy.”

“Luccan, I’m feeling a bit out of sorts. Continue to breathe without talking for a moment while I finish. Can you do that?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Not ‘sir,’ to you. Just Thurlock. As I was saying—”

“Whining.”

“What?”

Oh crap! I said that out loud. “Never mind, sorry.”

“Precisely. As I was saying, rescuing one single teenage boy, and battling one witch and one god, while short on rations. So yes, I feel like I’m a thousand years old.”

Thurlock’s voice had risen steadily on those two last sentences, and by the time he was done, Lucky could hear pebbles and sand falling, having been shaken loose, he thought, by the wizard’s booming voice.

Thurlock shifted and groaned and grunted. The bug feet went tik-tik-tik, and something somewhere continued to drip. After a while Lucky said, “Thurlock?”

No answer.

“Thurlock?”

“Hmh.”

“You are a thousand years old.”

No response.

“Thurlock?”

“Shut up, Lucky.”

Tik-tik…. Drip….

Breathe, Lucky. “Thurlock?”

No response.

“I’m dizzy. Or something.”

The wizard grunted and said, “Post-translation.”

“Post-translation?”

“It passes.”

Next Lucky heard a deep wizardish groan and the sound of loud breathing. And, of course, tik-tik-tik.

“Thurlock?”

“Hmh.”

“I’m going to be sick.”

“Well, turn the other way, please!” The old man’s voice couldn’t have been gruffer, but Lucky felt a warm, familiar hand giving his ankle a reassuring squeeze. He lay still and he wasn’t sick, and he started to feel like he could tell up from down. He sighed in relief, but after he stopped worrying about throwing up and having his bearings, he started thinking about the situation, and fear came galloping in, riding roughshod over everything else.

“Thurlock?”

Again, a squeeze of Lucky’s ankle. Tik-tik…. Drip-drip-drip….

“Thurlock?”

“Umh.”

“Are we going to die here?”

A snort, this time, and then a groan.

“Are we?”

Sigh. “Don’t be silly, Lucky. I’m a thousand-year-old wizard, and you’re a smart fifteen-year-old Suth Chiell. Surely we’ll think of something. Just give it a minute.”

Breathe, Luccan, breathe.

Silence. Darkness. Drip-drip-drip…. Cold.

“Thurlock?”

“Still here.”

“Where’s everyone else?”

“Where we left them, I’m sure.”

“Are they okay? Han and everybody? Maizie?”

Silence. For a long time.

Thurlock cleared his throat. “I think so. I hope so. I can’t say for sure, because I’ve been with you. The last I saw them, they were outside the tower finishing off a fight with Isa’s people. And Han was preparing to finish off a great blue salamander.”

“A lizard?”

“Dragon.”

“Oh.” Lucky decided not to pursue that idea, because he had other things, other thoughts cropping up. Most troubling, he kept seeing his father as he was in the battle against the witch. His already maimed left side, his empty eye socket. But his amazing strength and skill in the fight, and… a smile just before he gave Lucky his cardinal name, and the peace he seemed to find in dying. There in the dark, Lucky sort of expected tears, but instead a vivid childhood memory bled through the remnants of the spell that had locked them away three years ago.

“I remember when I was a little boy. My father took me on his horse.”

“Yes, Luccan,” Thurlock said, not nearly as gruff. “He did.”

“He loved me… then.”

“He did.”

“He loved me when he came to the witch’s tower.”

“Yes.” Thurlock patted his ankle.

More silence followed, more darkness. More Tik-tik. Drip-drip-drip. Lucky shivered. He supposed he should try to think about getting out of this place, wherever it was, because it didn’t seem like the wizard was doing it. In fact, Lucky thought perhaps the old man had fallen asleep.

“Thurlock?”

“Not dead yet.”

“Why don’t you make some light?”

“This is the collapsed entry to a Portal, Lucky, a vortex. I told you about vortices. Magic doesn’t work, remember?”

“Why don’t we go through the Portal, then?”

“Key word here, ‘collapsed.’”

Lucky decided to wait for Thurlock to get ready to do whatever he was going to do to get them out of this. He had utmost faith. To his credit, he was quiet for a long time, during which he counted thirty-one drips and forty-seven tik-tiks.

“Thurlock?”

“I’m going to change my name.”

“I think there’s a glow. Over there.”

“A glow, huh? That could be useful.”

“Do you see it? Over there?”

“Well, Lucky.”

There was that sarcastic drawl again. Maybe Lucky had been mistaken when he thought the wizard’s mood had improved.

“For starters,” Thurlock said, “it’s very dark in here. Also, I’m keeping my eyes closed because my head hurts a little less that way, and with my eyes closed all I see are stars. With them open I see more stars—I think that might be my brain’s way of pretending there’s light in here. Judging from the increased pain in my head at those times, I’d say that has nothing at all to do with the reported glow. So you see,” he continued, “I can’t see your hand, and I will have no idea what direction you’re indicating no matter how many times you point and say, ‘Over there.’”

Lucky could tell the old man wasn’t himself—probably due to a head injury, he thought. Or rather, he was himself, only more so. Lucky tried to be understanding, tried to stay calm. But, even though Thurlock patted his ankle now and then and made a number of unpleasant old-man noises, Lucky felt like he was all alone with his thoughts, and the path they led him down wasn’t a pretty one.

Maybe we are going to die here. Maybe there’s no way out. Maybe that’s why Thurlock isn’t doing anything. Lucky shivered but then took his wandering mind firmly to task, determined not to rush to conclusions. If we were going to die, surely he’d be trying to comfort me. He’s just tired. I only need to wait.

He lay still, breathing, listening to the tiks and the drips, and the grunts, shuffles, and moans. He felt the air move over his skin. It felt odd, and it took a few seconds for him to realize what it meant.

“Thurlock? I feel a draft.”

“That must be refreshing. I feel pain and something hideous crawling on me.”

That bit of dry wit was all Lucky could bear. He felt pretty sure he was going to cry, and in his mind he counted off a list of reasons it wouldn’t matter if he did.

1.     They were going to die there.

2.     It was dark and no one would see him cry.

3.     They were going to die there.

4.     There was already a dripping noise so his tears would blend right in.

5.     They were going to die there.

Of course, none of the hideous background noises could hide the sob that escaped as he counted off number five.

The wizard sneezed, and then he spoke. “Lucky, listen, young man. Here’s what you should know at the moment. I am hurt and I feel sick. I’m sure it’s not serious—I’m pretty hard to kill—but for this moment I feel quite helpless. I do not like feeling helpless. I’m not at all used to it, and the result of it is that I am irritable.”

Tik-tik, drip. From Thurlock, a moment’s silence, but somehow Lucky knew he was only pausing for thought, so he waited.

“Well, more irritable than usual, I should say. In any case, don’t pay my grumpiness any mind. Truly, a glow and a draft—that’s very good. Exactly what we need. But as I said, I’m basically helpless right now. I’m going to need your help again. You know how getting out of a place like this works because you’ve done it before, when you landed in the cave on Earth. This time you’ve got a grouchy old man along for company. You can handle that, right?”

Thurlock waited, so Lucky very quietly said, “Right.”

“Try to get turned so you can move toward the glow and the draft—do they come from the same direction?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Good. Okay. Go carefully, so you don’t get hurt or fall into a pit or something. Go slowly, so I can hold on to your ankle when we’re crawling, or your shoulder if we get to someplace we can walk. That way I won’t get lost, and as long as I’ve got hold of you, we’ll both know we’re in this together. I am sick and half-blind at the moment, but if we run into a problem, I might still be good to have around.”

When Thurlock stopped talking, it only took Lucky a few seconds to realize some response was probably a good idea. “Oh, uh, yes sir.”

“Good, but you don’t have to agree so enthusiastically.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“Just kidding, and stop calling me sir.”

Lucky wasn’t sure how he could tell, but he was pretty sure Thurlock was grinning. Then he turned serious again.

“But, young man, here’s what else is important. Are you listening?”

“Um….” Tik-tik…. Drip…. “Yes?”

“Good. Pay attention. I trust you, Luccan, Suth Chiell. I’d trust you with my life. I am trusting you with my life. But it’s not a problem. As you will someday come to know, I and a multitude of other people would follow you anywhere. So face that light, let me latch on, and lead me out of here.”

“Me?”

“Get used to it, Lucky, it’s your job.”

Tik-tik. Drip.

“Move it, boy!”

 

 

LUCKY EMERGED from the shallow cave three steps ahead of the wizard Thurlock, who seemed to be having a hard time unfolding his tall frame on the way out. He closed his eyes against the gray light and took a deep, grateful breath of forest-scented air. Bird songs and calls came from every direction, and a nearby squirrel sounded a repeated alarm.

When he opened his eyes, he expected early morning—which should have been correct. Their time in Naught seemed like only seconds, they couldn’t have been inside the cave more than half an hour, and it had been just dawn when they left Earth.

But in the few minutes Lucky stood there outside the cave, the low sunbeams lighting the mist seemed to be falling rather than rising.

“Thurlock?”

“Let’s get going, Luccan. We’ve a bit of a walk, and it’ll be dark soon.”

Lucky had been about to ask if they’d somehow been traveling through from Earth to Ethra for a whole day—even though it felt like only minutes. He wasn’t sure if what the old wizard said answered that question, but just as he was ready to try asking again, all the sounds and bustle of the forest hushed.

Thurlock arched an eyebrow and cocked his head to the side, listening for something. “A storm is coming—”

If he said more, Lucky didn’t hear. A blast of ice-cold wind shredded the words. He tried to huddle against it, but it pelted his skin and scalp with hard, cold rain.

Fear grabbed his heart and squeezed it. Cold means ice, ice means the witch. The thought of Isa—the Witch-Mortaine who so recently had held him captive in her tower—inspired pure terror. At last he found his voice. “It’s the witch,” he choked. “It’s Isa!”

“Luccan!”

Lucky heard Thurlock calling his Ethran name, but the frigid wind had carried him back to the witch’s tower of ice, steel, and unfathomable cruelty. The wizard called out to him again, putting a Command in his voice this time. Still, Lucky stood hunched and shaking and didn’t respond.

Thurlock’s touch got through to him, though. The wizard took hold of his hand and wrapped it around the talisman hanging from a chain around Lucky’s neck.

The Key of Behliseth—Lucky always wore it, and this wasn’t the first time he’d needed it for light and warmth. Now the touch of the smooth, warm metal drove back the vision of beasts, black blood, and blazing but empty blue eyes. He found he could breathe, and he let his shoulders relax, his fists go slack.

Lucky spoke the only words that came to mind, hopeful that they were true. “It’s over.” He didn’t mean the wind.

“Certainly it is,” Thurlock said.

Lucky gazed up into the old man’s gray eyes and found them warm and as calming as a gentle sea. The connection lasted seconds, long enough for Lucky to remember where he was and where he wasn’t. He looked away, pushed his always-rebellious hair out of his eyes, and sighed.

He felt annoyed with himself. I’m fifteen years old, not a child! I lived on the streets for a whole year and managed okay. I nearly fell off a cliff. I fought off crazy people who acted like zombies and the meanest witch anyone in any world could ever dream of, and topped it all off by piloting a ball of golden light through a black hole. Will I never toughen up enough to not fall apart in the face of something as harmless as a cold wind?

“It’s not Isa, Luccan. She’s truly dead,” Thurlock said. He held out his hands, palms up. “And this is just a storm.”

“S-sor-ry,” Lucky said, feeling ridiculously inadequate. Besides, it was still cold—damn cold. Especially for a person wearing a shredded T-shirt and torn cargo shorts, and who’d gone without sleep for most of his life. At least it felt like it had been that long, and he shivered.

“None of that,” Thurlock boomed. “No apology. You can hardly expect yourself to come through a week like the one you’ve just had and not have at least a case of the jitters.” He put a hand on Lucky’s shoulder, pushed him back, and held him at arm’s length. Lucky felt like he was being inspected. With his other hand, the wizard tugged at his beard, which meant he was thinking.

“Hmm,” the wizard said, more of a mutter than a boom this time. “Yes… I think, this.” He made a slight gesture with his right hand as he uttered that final word.

A weight dropped onto Lucky’s shoulders and rolled itself out over his chest, back, and legs, eventually winding itself under his feet. As if an afterthought, a featherlight something settled on his head.

“There.” Thurlock’s nod seemed to convey satisfaction with what he had done. “Warmer now?”

“Um….” Feeling perplexed—which wasn’t unusual around the wizard—Lucky stared and said no more.

“Cold is just one of those things that happens, Luccan. Neither evil nor good, but it’s unpleasant. Helps a great deal if you’re prepared for it with warm clothing.” He swept out his hand toward Lucky, like a stage magician after a trick. “As you are now.”

Taking the none-too-subtle hint, Lucky looked down at his new clothes. He now wore a pullover-type shirt with an open collar, the material like worn cotton flannel and almost white. Over that a longer garment—perhaps called a tunic—probably wool, belted with wide, stiff leather that tied at one side with four laces. The belt was embossed with symbols: stag, sword, tree, and the emblem of the twelve-rayed sun. Two of those sun symbols had recently been branded into his shoulders by his own magic.

A heavy cloak lined with fur covered everything and included a cowl he could pull over his head—which at the moment sported a soft, light, loose-woven cap. He took a moment to watch the way the rain beaded and rolled off the cloak without soaking in. Then he took stock of the garments covering his legs—leggings, two sets. The outer layer was made of fur, wrapped his feet and on up to his knees, and was held snug with leather straps from his—sandals. Under that he wore a layer made of soft, thick cloth, but on second thought those didn’t seem like leggings so much because they went all the way up under his….

“Thurlock, I’m wearing a skirt!” To be honest, he’d wondered a few times how he’d look in a skirt, but he’d never really felt driven to try it. It didn’t look bad, really—he just hadn’t expected it.

“It’s a kilt. Just walk on a bit, Luccan. You’ll get used to it.”

“You’re not wearing one.”

“Of course not! I’m a wizard. I wear robes.”

They fell silent, Thurlock seeming as disgruntled as Lucky felt. Wandering through the wood bundled like a walking laundry basket to keep from freezing wasn’t the homecoming he’d imagined. Although, he realized, we’re not exactly wandering. They followed a path, almost wide enough to be a road, but it had been hard to know that, because it wound around rocks and trees and was nearly hidden under fallen leaves—more leaves than the ones that still clung to their assigned twigs in the treetops.

He trudged beside the tall, silver-haired, thousand-year-old wizard and wondered how the heck the old man kept from freezing his lips blue. He wore only a white robe, tied like a karate jacket. It draped to his ankles, where it met up with the tops of the sandals covering his bare feet. Just seeing it made Lucky start shivering again.

Thurlock reached over and pulled the cowl up over Lucky’s head.

Lucky stopped shivering but felt like the Ghost of Christmas Past. “So,” he said, half expecting his voice to sound like a moaning echo. “Are Ethran summers always like this?”

“Not at all. I strongly suspect that, though it was summer where we just came from—”

“Earth.”

“Yes, Earth. Though it was summer there, I suspect that here—”

“Ethra.”

“Yes, Ethra. Stop interrupting. I suspect that here fall is well underway.”

As if to prove the wizard’s point, another extra-strength gust shot past, pelting them with gravel and sticks, whipping fallen leaves into the air, and stripping tree branches all but bare. As the wind fell back and debris settled to the ground, a scrabbling, scratching noise different from the rest came from under the damp blanket of leaves. Thurlock kept walking, either not hearing or thinking nothing of it, but Lucky stopped and listened until he could pin down the place the sound was coming from.

“Wait,” he said, though quietly.

Thurlock turned to look at him—eyes narrowed in what Lucky hoped was curiosity—and opened his mouth to speak.

Sssh!” Aware that he’d just told an extremely powerful wizard to sssh, Lucky inwardly felt aghast. He ignored that queasy feeling, though, along with the eyebrow the wizard raised in response. He followed his ear to the scrabbling sound, crouched low to the ground, and gently pushed away the leaf cover. Underneath, a small bird, silvery-gray in the dusk-light, lay half on its side, propelling itself in circles with an outstretched wing.

Lucky was sure the wing wasn’t broken; a wise old man named Hank—who had taken care of him after he’d landed in Earth three years ago, all confused—had taught him that birds behave strangely when they become disoriented.

“It’s in shock,” he said quietly, talking as much to himself as to Thurlock. “Probably got knocked out of a tree by that wind.” He cupped his hands gently around the creature and scooped it from the ground. Making small, soothing sounds between his tongue and his teeth, he smoothed the bird’s wing back against its body, the little creature’s heart beating fast against his fingers, like a tiny motor.

The bird would need a place to stay hidden and warm and to gather its senses. “It needs time to recover,” he said, still speaking gently so as not to startle it. Stroking the silver feathers and murmuring comfort, he rose to his feet. A tiny, dark niche where three rocks came together, about eye level to Lucky, seemed the perfect place. Bits of grass and small twigs had caught inside, which should help the bird stay warm.

He slid his small ward tail-first into its temporary home. “You’re going to be all right,” he said. After tugging some vines over the rock to cover the entrance, he rejoined Thurlock and began walking. When he looked back, the old man stood silent, tugging at his beard.

Finally Thurlock sighed and then fell into step beside Lucky. “You’re going to be all right too, Luccan. You’re going to be just fine.”

A dozen steps later, he added, “Eventually.”